The Most Harmful Fabrics in Fashion (and A Personal Challenge)

How To Wear A Tunic Sweater
By Jess
2 May 2019
Jess Ann Kirby organizes her neutral colored chunky knit sweaters at her home in Rhode Island

The last two days have been an intense learning curve. By the end of the first day, I was in tears out of frustration. Our food, our beauty products, our clothing, all of it has such an immense impact on our planet and on us. It’s INSANE the number of toxic chemicals that are allowed in the foods we eat and the products that we use. But with knowledge comes power, and if there’s one thing I’ve learned over the last few days it’s that WE have the power to change all of it.

When I wrote down my goals at the beginning of the year and then created a capsule wardrobe a few months later, my main focus was consuming less. While it was a good place to start, and it helped me realize just how much I was wastefully spending and consuming, I’ve realized I need to go further.

Creating a capsule wardrobe forced me to pay a lot more attention to the things I buy. I started to shop more sustainable and ethical brands (the two aren’t mutually exclusive by the way, we’ll get to that) and I felt pretty good about it. Then I started to do more digging and slowly fell into the black hole of researching the fashion industry, the fabrics they use, and the impact they have on the environment. I’m not going to pretend I didn’t know the fashion industry was a big polluter. I know this, but I didn’t quite think about all the different ways in which it’s such a harmful industry.

For example, polyester, the most popular material used in fashion, is incredibly damaging for the environment. From a production standpoint, it’s a fiber made from petroleum—the same substance used to make plastic water bottles. It can take up to 200 years to decompose. When polyester clothes are washed, they shed microfibers that are so small they easily pass through sewage and wastewater treatment plants into our waterways. Since they do not biodegrade, they threaten sea life, and ultimately find their way back to us when we eat fish and shellfish. 

Honestly, after the amount of research I’ve done in the last 48 hours I could go on FOREVER, but a) I’m not an expert and b) I wanted to make this post as impactful and easy to digest as possible. This has been quite a learning process for me and to be transparent, at times very frustrating. There is SO MUCH conflicting information. What I’m going to share, is based on my research. Ultimately I think the approach of shopping less and focusing on quality over quantity is one of the best approaches to take, but I think it’s important to educate ourselves about the choices we make and how those decisions have a greater impact on society and the environment. One last note, this post isn’t the final word on the best way to approach this subject. There is truly so much to learn on this topic. This is a starting point, and I’ll continue to do my best and share what I learn along the way. I encourage you to do the same.

Jess Ann Kirby researches the most environmentally harmful textiles as well as more sustainable options for her wardrobe.

First, let’s talk about fabrics…

This is not a comprehensive list of fabrics used in the fashion industry but they are the ones, based on my research, that are causing the most environmental harm. Of course, I will continue looking into different materials and their environmental impact as we move forward.

The Culprit: Polyester/Nylon

Polyester currently dominates the fashion industry and is one of the most commonly used plastics in the world. The worst parts about polyester: it does not biodegrade and it is derived from petroleum (the oil manufacturing industry is the world’s largest pollutant). The production of polyester requires the use of harmful chemicals, including carcinogens, and can cause significant environmental damage. As I mentioned above, washing polyester also released tiny microfibers into our waterways negatively impacting aquatic life and adding more plastic to our oceans. Nylon, like polyester, is a type of plastic derived from crude oil. Producing nylon is a very chemically intensive process that creates nitrous oxide, a greenhouse gas that is 300 times more potent than carbon dioxide.

The Alternative: Recycled Polyester (see also Tencel/Lyocell)

In the past few years, recycled polyester has become a big part of sustainable fashion. Typically recycled polyester is made from recycled plastic bottles. Keeping plastic bottles out of landfills is a good thing, and buying recycled polyester minimizes waste while cutting out the fossil fuel industry, but studies have shown microfibers from recycled polyester can be harmful too. Ultimately the goal should be to eliminate single-use plastic altogether. If you have or plan to purchase recycled polyester items, wash them with The Guppyfriend to keep microfibers from entering our waterways.

The Culprit: Rayon/Acrylic

Rayon is made from plants, but it’s not eco-friendly because of its toxic production and the deforestation associated with it. 

The Alternative: Tencel/Lyocell or Silk

Tencel/lyocell is the most eco-friendly alternative comparatively speaking, against rayon/nylon. It has a closed loop production which means that the solvent is recycled time and time again to produce new fibers and minimize harmful waste going into the environment.

If done well, making silk can be a low waste process, and because it’s a natural fiber is also biodegradable.

The Culprit: Cotton

I’ll be honest, cotton was probably the most shocking to me in terms of fabrics. Cotton requires A LOT of water to grow. Safely disposing of the hazardous chemicals used to dye fabric is very costly. Due to the fast fashion industry and pressure to keep costs low, the result is contaminated waterways. To put it in perspective, in India, where 100 million people have no access to safe drinking water, the water used in cotton production could provide 85% of the country’s 1.24 billion people with 100 liters of water every day for a year according to Good on You. Growing cotton also requires the use of pesticides. Pesticides contaminate soil and water and create health problems for farm workers and nearby populations.

The Alternative: Organic Cotton, Linen and Hemp

Organic cotton does not require pesticides or toxic chemicals to grow, making it a much better alternative to traditional or GMO cotton. Organic cotton also uses less energy and water than traditional cotton. Look for brands certified with GOTS.

If you’re a lover of linen you now have even more reasons. Linen is biodegradable, recyclable, and doesn’t require pesticides. The plant used to make linen, flax, is versatile and makes production cost-effective requiring less water than cotton. Linen is also incredibly durable and can last a long time. Check out my post on linen bedding here.

Hemp is an incredibly versatile plant. It naturally repels pests, so it doesn’t require pesticides and it returns 60-70% of the nutrients it takes from the soil. It also requires very little water and a relatively small amount of land to cultivate. The problem with hemp lies in the production of the actual fabric. It can be converted into fabric sustainably but chemical processes may also be used to cut costs. When buying products made from hemp pay attention to the brand’s overall sustainability and ethics.

The Challenge:

Did you make it this far? If so, yay, and thank you! I know it’s a lot to digest. Where do we go from here? This is my plan. First, look at your wardrobe and look at the tags. What fabrics are in your closet? Don’t go and get rid of all your clothes because they have polyester or acrylic. Just as I don’t want you getting rid of your existing wardrobe this is also not a prompt to go buy a whole new one. Again, quality over quantity and focusing on less consumption overall is the goal. Here’s my next steps:

  • Clothing purchases will focus on quality over quantity with sustainable and ethical materials.
  • When purchasing anything new focus on buying from sustainable and ethical brands (more on that below) and items made of fabrics including: linen, organic cotton, recycled polyester (for activewear and outerwear), upcycled textiles, tencel and organic/sustainable silk.
  • Use The Guppyfriend for laundering any fabrics containing polyester.
Some thoughts on shopping

There are lots of sustainable brands popping up all the time. This list is not comprehensive, it’s just a mention of some brands I’ve purchased from and had good experiences with their products. I’ll of course continue to share more sustainable brands (in beauty and home as well) as we move forward.

Secondhand – A great way to keep clothes out of landfills is to buy used clothing. One of my favorite things to do on the weekend when we lived in Brooklyn was go thrift shopping. There are lots of online options for secondhand now as well including ThredUp, Etsy, eBay, Poshmark (an App), The Real Real (luxury), and Vestiaire Collective (luxury).

Girlfriend Collective – Activewear made from recycled polyester

Mate the Label – Organic cotton tees and linen basics.

Patagonia – The company has been an industry leader in ethical and sustainable active and outerwear.

Sézane – A brand that’s been a favorite for a while now. Sezane isn’t rated on Good on You but they have a pretty extensive section on their website about their sustainability efforts and you can see production information about each item on their individual pages.

Everlane – I was disappointed to see Everlane’s Good on You App rating of “Not Good Enough.” That said, I think Good on You is a great resource but also not the perfect way to determine a brand’s ethical and sustainability legitimacy. I think Everlane can stand to improve, and it seems they are working towards that with things like their clean silk line.

Reformation – Inclusive sizing, ethical and sustainable dresses, tops, tees and jeans.

Threads 4 Thought – Sustainable activewear brand using recyled polyester and organic cotton fabrics.

Vitamin A Swimwear – Sustainable swim brand using recycled and organic textiles.

Mara Hoffman – Premium brand of dresses and swim with a “Great” environmental rating from Good on You. Utilizes majority organic cotton and recycled textiles and eco-friendly materials.

Boyish Denim – Sustainable and ethical denim brand with a goal of becoming 100% zero waste. Utilizes recycled cotton, lyocell and recycles water in production so no harsh chemicals enter the water supply.


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